The Deadly Power of Legalism

I often look online to find sites that deal with areas of apologetics that are of great interest to me. I especially look for the ones advocating that we need to keep the Law. At one particular site I found a video which had gotten 17,000 hits. That’s 17,000 people looking at what the gentleman was teaching. As I sat listening to him, I reflected on the tragedy of individuals removing themselves from the opportunity to experience God’s grace in order to adopt a system of rule keeping.

Does the God of grace really want us to regulate our relationship with Him simply by rule keeping? To answer that, let’s examine the Law and look for any basis for keeping it as a means of gaining God’s favor. Of the 613 commandments (the number understood by Judaism), 330 of those commandments - or 53% of the Mosaic Law - are no longer applicable or cannot be done in this present age. Some of the remaining ones refer only to women, so that leaves even more out. The way Judaism has dealt with this problem is by the invention of the Oral Law, which was never given by God nor was it sanctioned by Him.  The area of apologetics concerning law keeping is rather large, but there is one important thing to note. Even Judaism does not believe that all the commandments can be kept. Therefore, Judaism is admitting that the law cannot be kept in the form in which it was originally given. The fiction the Jewish people today perpetuate of keeping the whole Torah is one kept alive by the rabbis and asserted by some in Judaism. The existence of the Talmud clearly speaks against this particular idea.

But did God believe Israel could keep the Law? I believe on two fronts we can state that God never, ever believed that Israel could keep the Law as He gave it. First, He states very clearly that Israel is not going to keep the Law in Deuteronomy 31:16-17. He says, “And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Behold, you will rest with your fathers; and this people will rise and play the harlot with the gods of the foreigners of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them. Then my anger shall be aroused against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured. And many evils and troubles shall befall them, so that they will say in that day.’” The Lord hardly believes that Israel can keep the Law based on this assessment of how they will behave after Moses dies.

Beyond this, the very necessity of a New Covenant is due to the fact that Israel could not keep the covenant given under Moses. The Lord makes this clear through the prophet Jeremiah: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,’ says the LORD (Jeremiah 31:31–32).” The formation of a new covenant due to the continual disobedience of the children of Israel over a period of at least a thousand years is evidence that the Law cannot be kept.

Why do people in increasing numbers want to go back to a simple law code in order to gain God’s favor? Let me offer a few suggestions. One possibility is that people want to be able to manipulate deity to be sure of being able to enjoy God’s favor every single moment (remember, that’s God’s favor as THEY define it). The Law just becomes a means of manipulating God in order to get blessing. Not only is this paganistic, but it borders on blasphemy. It’s as if to treat God as a slot machine in which coins of law keeping can be used to secure a jackpot. Yet, some people would prefer this sort of relationship and, on the face of it, it seems to provide great security. However, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan is not a tame lion. In other words, true deity cannot be managed by humanity.

Of course, another possibility exists. Perhaps a strict law-keeping code allows me to make myself better than others, giving me a reason to boast. I think this greatly appeals to a human’s pride and sense of self-worth. All too often, we want to be better by being better than someone else. This scheme ignores the fact that we can instead be better by becoming better at who we were meant to be.

Both of these ideas leave out the reason for the Law in the first place - that is, to let us see our inability to keep the law and to rely on God to help us. Both of the previous ideas leave God out of the equation, thus negating the work of the cross. We must remember that law keeping plays right into Satan’s hands by leading us toward pride and autonomy from God. If the devil can keep us following rules and stuck in our own perfectionism, he can keep us enslaved. Acceptance of God’s love freely and clearly and apart from rule keeping frees us from the slavery and allows us to function as true image bearers. We must preach grace to others and preach the gospel to ourselves at the same time. Then we will both bless those who hear us and be blessed ourselves.